Universal Brotherhood – March 1898

RICHARD WAGNER'S MUSIC DRAMAS: VIII-1 — Basil Crump

VIII. — PARSIFAL.

Compassion is no attribute. It is the Law of Laws — eternal Harmony, the World-Soul's SELF: a shoreless universal essence, the light of everlasting Right, and fitness of all things, the law of love eternal — Voice of the Silence.

Through voluntary suffering and renunciation man's egoism is already practically upheaved, and he who chooses them, let his object be whate'er you please, is thereby raised already above all notions bound by Time and Space; for no longer can he seek a happiness that lies in Time and Space, e'en were they figured as eternal as immeasurable. — Wagner's State and Religion.

In approaching a brief study of this, the crowning drama of the Master's life-work, one must have the whole cycle of his previous mystical works in mind. Then it will be perceived that they all represent different phases of the complex struggles undergone by the human being in the course of its evolution. The last of these struggles was depicted in Tristan and Isolde where we find the demons of the lower mind finally vanquished and the soul at pence with itself in conscious union with the World-Soul. In the introductory remarks on that work I alluded to the Thread-Soul connecting all the dramas, and I showed from Wagner's writings and correspondence that he was occupied at one and the same time with the three widely different yet closely allied subjects of the Ring, Tristan and Parsifal.

But there is now something more significant to add. Wagner tells Liszt that Die Sieger (the forerunner of Parsifal) could only become intelligible after digesting Tristan, "especially the third act." Coupling this with the fact that he at first intended to introduce the figure of Parsifal in this same third act, we get a clue to the Master's meaning. In the figure of Parsifal we see the product of the struggles depicted in the previous dramas. He stands alone as a perfect being; there is no female figure on or near his level, because in him the "head" and "heart," the Eternal Manly and the Eternal Womanly, are united as they there needs must be in one who has attained the power to redeem. Let us recall Wagner's words on the Ring drama: "Nor is Siegfried, taken alone (the male alone), the perfect Man: only with Brynhild becomes he the redeemer."

The great theme of the Parsifal drama is that of Compassion, the highest aspect of that love which was the keynote of Wagner's life, and whose sacred power is contained in the chalice of the Grail. During the composition of Tristan, Wagner wrote to a friend, "In all my relations to the suffering world I feel led and guided by one thing alone — Compassion. If only I could give myself thereto without reserve then all my private woes would be overcome." And there are numberless anecdotes of the greatness of his heart. Battling ever with unheard of difficulties, suffering as only such a highly strung, sensitive nature can suffer, he was yet constantly sharing his last shilling, his last crust, with a more needy brother. It was he, too, who said, "No individual can be happy until we are all happy; for no individual can be free until all are free." Says M. Kufferath, "He was, himself, all his life the compassionate being he imagined as the hero of his last work." Herein lies the secret of Wagner's power; he had lived all his dramas in his own heart and mind.

Besides Die Sieger, the drama in which the Buddha and his philosophy were to be introduced, Wagner had earlier sketched Jesus of Nazareth. But in both these subjects he felt the disadvantage of dealing with historical figures, and so he blended them in the mythical figure of Parsifal, making him the hero of a mystery-play in which the essential elements of the great religions of the Eastern and Western worlds are blended. Thus did he hold up to the world the grand ideal of a Brotherhood of Religions as well as of Arts and Humanity.

Many have thought that Parsifal is a specifically Christian play, but as a matter of fact it presents the essential truths of the great World-Religions in a form especially adapted to the Western world of today where Christianity is the ruling religion. In adopting this course Wagner showed his wisdom and deep knowledge of human nature; for it will always be found that truths are more readily conveyed to the mind in familiar than in unfamiliar forms, and that a wall of prejudice is frequently set up at the very commencement if this method is departed from.

In the short article on the Lohengrin drama I referred very briefly to the legend of the Holy Grail which is so prominent in the mythology of the European and especially the Celtic peoples. We have in this legend several important features. First of all there is the mysterious Monsalvat, or mount of salvation, on which the Castle of the Grail stood. This mountain is a world-wide symbol for a lofty state of consciousness reached by aspiration, purity, and altruistic endeavor. Consequently we find its location on earth to be uncertain and surrounded by mystery, although in some cases this may indicate one of the many places where mystic communities vowed to the highest service of humanity actually exist.

Wagner, following the "Parzival"of Wolfram von Eschenbaeh, has placed the Grail Castle on the Northern slope of the Mountains of Gothic Spain, while on the Southern side in Moorish Spain is the Castle of Perdition raised by the Magician Klinsfsor to lure the Grail Knights to destruction. These knights dwell in the Castle as chosen guardians of the Grail, united in the sacred bonds of Brotherly love and pledged to carry Relief and Truth to their fellow creatures. This mystic Brotherhood is a living fact in nature with many different expressions in the outer world, the Masonic Fraternity being perhaps the most widely spread of these. It is a Lodge governed by the immutable laws of nature which act without fear or favor. Thus the forces of destruction can never affect it, for each unit has its appropriate place and the ambitious, the selfish, and the traitorous can never pass its threshold, although they may imagine that they do so. All belong to it whether they know it or not who are carrying out its principles in their lives.

The Grand Master of this Lodge we here find in the King of the Knights of the Grail, and Wagner — a Mason himself — points out that his distinction from the rest of the Brotherhood lies in "the weight of suffering which none but himself can gauge" Further he says that this King or Grand Master is the living link between the ideal realm of the Grail where Divine Compassion resides and the material world where Selfishness reigns. "The atmosphere essential for his work," continues Wagner, "is found in a body of like-minded men banded together to serve him unreservedly, pledged fulfillers of his gracious will." This harmony, whole-hearted trust and absolute obedience to the Head is but little understood at the present day and yet there never was and never will be any other road to the Temple of the Holy Grail.

Next we come to the Sacred Cup itself in which are contained the fruits of suffering and incarnation in the material world — the Wisdom and Compassion which radiate from the Christos or Divine Self in Man — the mystic Bread and Wine. And here we can remind ourselves that the Eucharistic ceremony is of vast antiquity and discoverable in all religions and rituals of initiation. Let us take the early Druidical form of the Grail Cup, itself derived from the Egyptians. The Saga of the great bard Taliesin tells us how Gwion the dwarf or primitive man helps Koridwen (Nature) to boil in a cauldron or vase the six magic plants and so prepare the water of Wisdom. The hot liquid splashes on his hand and raising it to his mouth — as Siegfried did when the hot blood of the slain dragon burnt him — his inner faculties are awakened and he begins to understand Nature's secrets. Going through a series of forms in which he battles with nature and masters one by one her mysteries, he is at length re-born in a new and glorious shape as Taliesin, the initiated Bard, Master of Sound. The embryo soul of the dwarf has evolved through many births or changes of form, and by means of many struggles, until it vibrates in sympathy with all that lives and breathes.

Such a perfected being is called a Companion of the Lodge or of the Vase, and the name Parsifal in its Gallic form signifies Companion of the Cup or Vase, while the Persian form adopted by Wagner means the Pure Simple. The character of Parsifal is that of a stainless, simple youth who passes unscathed through all temptation and learns the World's pain through Sympathy or Compassion which is the highest aspect of the Will. It then becomes the power to redeem, and its weapon is the Sacred Lance which should never be separated from the Grail.

In the drama of Parsifal, Wagner takes these elements and presents to us in a series of pictures quivering with musical and dramatic life the story of the World's sin and pain, its cause and cure. The whole conception is characterized by a simplicity and beauty and yet by an immense grandeur, and solemnity impossible to describe.

In the next article I will pass on to the story of the drama itself to which the following passage from Wagner's Art and Revolution (Prose Works, I, 34), will form a fitting prelude. He is speaking of the great Festival Plays in Ancient Greece.

"To see the most pregnant of all tragedies, the Prometheus, came they; in this Titanic masterpiece to see the image of themselves, to read the riddle of their own actions, to fuse their own being and their own communion with that of their god . . . For in the Tragedy the Greek found himself again, — nay found the noblest parts of his own nature united with the noblest characteristics of the whole nation; and from his inmost soul, as it there unfolded itself to him, proclaimed the Pythian oracle. At once both God and Priest, glorious god-like man, one with the Universal, the Universal summed up in him; like one of those thousand fibres which form the plant's united life, his slender form sprang from the soil into the upper air; there to bring forth the one lovely flower which sheds its fragrant breath upon eternity."

(To be continued.)


Universal Brotherhood

THEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE